Jane Austen: The Last Great English Novelist

Jane Austen drew on her family life, social circle, and extensive education to write novels which reinvented the narrative of morality.

Dec 4, 2022By Michael Gouck, BA English Literature (Honours), MA Victorian Studies
jane austen great english novelist
Portrait of Jane Austen, via Open University


In 1981, one of the twentieth century’s most influential philosophers, Alasdair MacIntyre, wrote in his seminal work After Virtue that Jane Austen was “the last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues… because she unites the Christian and Aristotelian moral traditions masterfully.” According to MacIntyre, no writer after Austen could combine these two traditions. Before Austen, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson had mastered the novel of morality, which had become an influential type of fiction throughout the eighteenth century. With her many innovations, Austen refined the form.


However, in the decades which followed her death, the Victorian novel addressed other concerns. The rise of modernism in the twentieth century broke decisively with the idea of the novel as a persuasive narrative of morality. With respect to fiction which deals which moral tradition, Austen might well be said to have been the last great English novelist. But was MacIntyre right to make such a claim for Austen? Can she also be described as the last great English novelist? To answer that question, it is useful to consider her life in detail and trace the sources of her genius.


Jane Austen’s Early Years

jane austen father mother portrait
Silhouettes of Mr. and Mrs. Austen, via Jane Austen House


Jane Austen (1775–1817) was born in the village of Steventon, Hampshire on the 16th of December 1775 to the Reverend George Austen and Cassandra Leigh. She had six brothers and one older sister, Cassandra. Jane enjoyed a deep and close relationship with her only sister, and Jane’s letters reveal it was one upon which she relied intensely during her life.


Jane’s father was an Anglican clergyman and Rector of Steventon and nearby Deane. Mr. Austen attended Oxford University, and his academic background was to have a profound influence on Jane. From an early age, her father encouraged Jane in her studies and her tentative steps as an author. Until his death, George Austen did all he could to help Jane develop her burgeoning literary abilities.


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Jane’s mother, Cassandra, was descended from a family of prominent clerics and Oxford scholars. The Austen family home in Steventon was a rural environment in which education played a crucial part. This was reflected in the activities to which Jane was exposed from an early age. Amateur family dramatics were a feature of home life and rigorous learning guided by Reverend Austen’s watchful eye.


Soon after Jane’s birth, financial difficulties prompted Mr. Austen to take private pupils into his home in order to supplement the family income. The Austen family lived in relative comfort thanks to their modest means, but their financial situation was to remain a constant source of worry in the years to come. Anxiety about money was a theme found in all of Jane’s future novels.


A Large & Important Family

jane austen juvenilia
A copy of The Loiterer, via the British Library, London


Family, especially her brothers, played a central part in the life of Jane Austen. She was close to them all and, throughout her life, was attentive to their fortunes. James became a vicar; Francis and Charles joined the Navy, and both eventually took part in the Napoleonic Wars; Henry also joined the military, although he left it to make a career in finance. Young George, who had epilepsy, was sent to live with a relative.


In 1783, when Jane was eight years old, the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Knight adopted her brother, Edward. Years later, when he became the Austen family’s benefactor, Edward was to become a crucial source of support for his parents, brothers, and sisters. Jane contributed some of her earliest writings to The Loiterer, published weekly by her brother James while he was at Oxford University.


Most of Jane’s education took place at home in Steventon, after some unsuccessful attempts by the Austen family to place Jane and her sister Cassandra in boarding schools. Between the ages of nine and sixteen, her father tutored Jane whenever he was not busy educating his growing sons. Jane became well-read in the literature of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The epistolary novel Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson was a particular favorite.


Between the ages of eleven and eighteen, Jane wrote twenty-seven pieces, which would later make up her collected juvenilia. Included in these volumes were short tales, plays, fragments, and various unfinished scraps. Jane described some of these very short works as “novels,” including one which contained a comedic account of an incident-packed day out in London.


The Austen Family Moves to Bath

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Comforts of Bath by Thomas Rowlandson, 1798 via Yale University, New Haven


In December 1800, Jane Austen’s father decided he wished to retire and move to Bath. The following year, Jane and her parents left Steventon, which had been their home for many years, and established themselves in Bath. The town had become a popular destination for the English upper classes, eager to take advantage of the healing Roman water spas and indulge in the many social entertainments, including balls held in the Assembly Rooms. At these events, echoed in her novels, Jane formed judgments and opinions of the people she would later depict in fiction. Jane and her family spent most of the next few years in a variety of residences in the town.


In 1802 Jane finished revising a novel, initially called Susan but later to be titled Northanger Abbey. She sold the book to a publisher for £10, who took it without clearly indicating when he would publish it. The book was to remain unpublished for the rest of Jane’s life, a fact that became a source of distress to her. Years later, Jane tried to have her novel returned to her so she could offer it to another publisher, but she was threatened with legal action. The publisher was unaware of Jane’s identity since her novels, now enjoying modest success, had been issued without carrying her name. It was only after her death that her brother Henry bought back Northanger Abbey.


Love & Tragedy in the Life of Jane Austen

pride and prejudice 1st edition 3 volumes
The Three-Volume First Edition of Pride and Prejudice, via National Library of Scotland


In matters of the heart, young Jane Austen was not immune to the temptations of romantic affection. She formed an important and, what seemed to her, deeply felt attachment with young Tom Lefroy, but it came to nothing.


Later, in 1802, Jane went so far as to accept a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, a young man of some substance, only to change her mind after having reconsidered the situation overnight. Accepting and subsequently rejecting a marriage proposal carried significant social consequences. During her overnight deliberations, Jane had realized she had grave doubts about the character of her intended husband. Inevitably, Jane’s actions caused outrage in the family of Harris Bigg-Wither. This episode affected Jane greatly, and she struggled for some time afterward to put it behind her.


In 1805, Jane’s father, George, died after a brief illness. Jane grieved deeply for her father, who had been instrumental in her education. George Austen had been a moral guide to Jane and a provider of religious instruction, which was reflected in the prayers she wrote. His loss proved to be a serious setback for Mrs. Austen and her two daughters, placing the family under great financial distress. It prompted their removal from Bath, and a period of economic uncertainty prevailed.


Eventually, Edward, now established in his new role as the head of a growing Knight family at the grand residence at Godmersham in Kent, offered Mrs. Austen, Jane, and Cassandra the opportunity to create a Hampshire home for themselves. She had already drafted what would become Pride and Prejudice, and here she would complete the work.


A New Home & Fresh Beginning

jane austen house chawton
Jane Austen’s home at Chawton, Hampshire, via Historic England


In July 1809, Mrs. Austen and her two daughters moved into the house at Chawton, a small village near the main travel route to Winchester. In this comfortable home, situated close to the grand residence owned by her brother Edward, Jane was to write or complete almost all of her most famous novels, including a revision of the previous drafts of First Impressions, which became Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813.


Chawton was to be a place where Jane Austen experienced her greatest happiness. The house at Chawton, large enough and well-appointed, enabled Jane to focus more of her energies on writing fiction. It was during these years at Chawton that she formed what would become her distinctive body of work, unique in English literature.


A year after moving into the house at Chawton, the novel Sense and Sensibility was accepted for publication. Jane immediately started work on Mansfield Park, which she would continue to work on until its completion in 1813. It is interesting to note that readers have often seen Mansfield Park as a different and inferior kind of novel to Pride and Prejudice. Many reviewers over the years have found Mansfield Park’s heroine, Fanny Price, unappealing and even priggish. MacIntyre praises Fanny Price for possessing the virtue of constancy in the face of the various moral defects she finds during her life with the Bertram family. In any case, by writing a work so obviously different from Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen was already showing her mastery over the novel form and its potential as a vehicle for moral narrative.


Finally, a Life of Writing & Publishing

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Victorian Illustration from Pride and Prejudice, via National Library of Scotland


While living at Chawton, Jane published Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. In the year of her death, 1817, she began Sanditon, which was issued posthumously along with Persuasion, thanks to the efforts of Jane’s faithful brother, Henry.


Taken collectively, these works showed Jane Austen’s remarkable range as a novelist, demonstrating her skills in drawing incisive character portraits, sharp social satire, and comedy, as well as a powerful sense of morality honed by her acute observation of the world in which she moved.


As critics have suggested in recent years, the moral quality of Jane Austen’s work, not didactic but subtle, resulted from the influence of her father’s efforts to provide a broad education in the classics, theology, and literature to his daughter. The private prayers written by Jane also reveal a profound Christian sensibility, a clear legacy of her father’s religious influence. During her years at Chawton, Jane’s work grew in popularity, although this did not result in great financial rewards. Estimates suggest that during her life she earned only a few hundred pounds from her fiction.


Jane Austen’s Death & Legacy

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Jane Austen’s grave at Winchester Cathedral, via BBC


After a long battle with illness, Jane Austen died on the 18th of July, 1817. A week later, she was buried in Winchester Cathedral. On her gravestone were carved the words:


“The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her intimate connections.”


After her sister’s death, Cassandra Austen worked tirelessly to ensure that Jane’s legacy would be looked after, taking a close involvement in the ongoing publication of the novels. Cassandra’s affection for her sister was reflected in the care with which she protected Jane’s literary inheritance.


However, Cassandra’s decision to destroy selected letters from her sister frustrated the future efforts of biographers to discover some aspects of Jane’s life. Under Cassandra’s stewardship, the literary reputation of Jane Austen was maintained and then passed to her successors. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, Jane Austen’s six principal novels came to be regarded as high points in English literature. They continued to be read into the twentieth century, by which point her achievements as a novelist came to be seen in a fresh light. The relevance of Jane’s work was applied to a variety of fields of literary studies, from feminism to postmodernism.


Jane’s reputation grew steadily with the passing years. Tennyson compared her to Shakespeare, and C.S. Lewis likened her to Samuel Johnson, inheriting his common sense, his morality, and much of his style. In likening her to past literary giants, Lewis was simply affirming a future assessment of her uniqueness. After Jane Austen, there was no-one quite like her in English literature.

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By Michael GouckBA English Literature (Honours), MA Victorian StudiesMichael has a BA (Honours) in English Literature and an MA in Victorian Studies from the University of London. He currently writes historical fiction full-time and has a deep and continuing fascination with every aspect of nineteenth-century Victorian society.